Musician and entrepreneur Steve Aoki is committed. To hard work, to family, to ideas, and to growth. But the funny thing about commitment is that when one invests in something, worlds open up. It’s like the pursuit of knowledge. Scholars will tell you, that the more they learn about something, the more they realize they don’t know. A breadcrumb can turn into a life of cooking, which can turn into a complete state of reverence for history, technique, and possibilities for much more.
Today, Aoki is capable of reminiscing about his developmental DIY past as he is projecting ahead to new realms and new offerings. But both past and present collide on his new album, HIROQUEST: Genesis, which is set to drop on Friday (September 16). The album is diverse, bombastic, and personal. It’s the culmination of years of learning the music industry and also the first step, in many ways, to what’s coming next for Aoki: world-building. But everything Aoki does today stems first from finding music as a kid.
“I was introduced to music through my older brother,” Aoki tells American Songwriter. “As a culture, as a lifestyle.”
Through his older sibling, Aoki first realized that music could be the window through which everything occurred. While he was very young at the time and couldn’t necessarily articulate this thought, the seeds were planted early on. From clothing style to vinyl collecting to conversations and even starting bands, music could provide. Then, as a teenager, Aoki began acting on it. He found hardcore punk rock and dove into its depths. He shaved his head, went vegetarian, and got clothes that fit the scene. He started skateboarding. It was, as he says, a “full commitment.” It was a social club, but one that would accept him. He was never a jock, never one who quite fit into the social structure around him. But hardcore punk rock changed that.
“With this kind of cultural world,” he says, “I remember going to Kinko’s and making ‘zines with my friends. We were the only people making ‘zines in high school.”
He conducted interviews for his makeshift periodicals and introduced people to bands, and the scene. He enjoyed poetry, and he started a band. It was a small sphere but it was one he could impact in major ways. As a result, he learned from a young age that “anything was possible.” Before he found hardcore, he says, he never understood that. He remembers seeing Michael Jackson in the ’80s, sitting in the nosebleed section and watching his then-favorite performer. But there was such a “barrier of entry” to becoming, say, the next Michael Jackson that it seemed, for all intents and purposes, impossible. But hardcore punk rock? That was all within arm’s reach.
“With hardcore,” he says, “there was zero barrier of entry. Want to do a ‘zine? Just make a ‘zine! Want to start a band? Learn an instrument!”
As the years passed, many chapters unfolded in Aoki’s burgeoning creative life. He threw parties in college at his tiny apartment, hosting what would turn out to be hundreds of bands. He later moved to Los Angeles, and with a new record label that he started, Dim Mak, he began hosting DJ nights where some of the most influential people began showing up. Artists like the late DJ AM to Lady Gaga and Black Eyed Peas frontman, will.i.am. He began touring the United States with his punk rock group, undertaking 14 tours before he was 21 years old, sleeping on floors, couches, in the van—but never in hotels. He played in front of 10-to-30 people, and made a few dollars at the door, and more in merch sales. But he never got discouraged at the lighter turnout. Instead, it was all about building, building, building. Now Aoki tours on private jets in five-star hotels.
“When you go through that kind of life,” Aoki says, “it really sets you up for any level of touring. It was Bootcamp.”
Today, he doesn’t necessarily miss those early days—he likes showing regularly. But he does look back on them fondly and with a clear understanding of how they were the building blocks of his now-uber-successful life as an in-demand touring DJ. The L.A. shows in the 2000s were “special” he says for the culture they produced, the connections he made, and for their reliance on in-person attendance. There was no social media, no live streaming. You had to be in the room. The biggest lesson he learned, though, is that success and attention aren’t born from any specific style of music, per se. Instead, he says, it’s about quality and freshness.
“It’s not about the music genre,” Aoki says. “It’s just about—it’s all the same. The genres will change but the basis, the foundation of building culture is essentially the same mechanism. Consistency and quality. At the end of the day, you have to be consistent and have to provide the culture with new, fresh quality.”
When people think of Aoki today, they likely think of the artist in front of tens of thousands of people, spinning music from a DJ set, perched on the stage of some hugely famous electronic music festival. This is what he likes most, he says: playing live in front of people. Why? Because he can see the individual faces light up with responses. The Mona Lisa can’t register the reactions on the faces of those who pass by. But Aoki can.
But the faces he cares most about, largely, are those that belong to his family. Perhaps, most specifically, his mother. Aoki calls his mother his “heart.” In Las Vegas, where he lives now, he bought a house right next door for her to live in. They take chess lessons together. She practices the piano at his house. Another important family member in Aoki’s family tree is his late father, someone he says had a “samurai” work ethic. It’s true, Aoki’s father started the Benihana restaurant chain. He was a champion speed boat racer and flew great distances in a hot air balloon.
“He wasn’t the kind of father who sits you down and says, ‘This is how it is,’” Aoki remembers. “He just does it.”
Witnessing his father’s work ethic and success drove Aoki. It might be his biggest driving force, even today, while his mother represents comfort and delight. As Aoki gets older (he’s now 44), he concentrates more and more on what is healthy. From giving up drinking to beginning a practice of meditating. He remains “addicted” to touring and playing live, but he’s healthy in almost every other aspect of his life. Much of this is in his 2016 documentary, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, which crescendos with a concert on the streets of L.A. that took up multiple city blocks.
But topping himself seems to be Aoki’s constant goal. His latest? A new LP, which boasts a diverse selection of big names, including Kane Brown. The new album was born during the COVID-19 lockdown. It was the first time the constant-touring artist took a breath in years (decades?). He was able to experiment musically for the first time in forever, picking up his bass and guitar again. He was “jamming more,” he says. Going back to his “roots.” For someone whose life is so structured, it was a chance to try new things out.
“During COVID,” he says, “there was no rush.”
With Brown, Aoki says, the two would often play the video game Call of Duty, and a friendship formed. The digital adventure, in a way, portended a new future for Aoki. During the lockdown, he also got into the collectible culture, purchasing rare Pokémon cards and trading cards, endeavoring into the realm of NFTs. The result of all that is a new ambition: world-building. And HIROQUEST: Genesis marks the first attempt to bring that to the world, in many ways. Now, Aoki is creating his own trading cards, his own massive-scale games—the concept of MetaZoo—and the future is, essentially, limitless. He says he’s in the “pre-IP” stage, building a road for IP that will exist outside of the music. The entrepreneur is constantly finding his next endeavor (case in point: Aoki just signed on to be an ambassador for the gambling outfit, DraftKings). While there is a certain amount of calculation that goes into this work, the magic, Aoki says, is in deciding what has a future. From the thousands of voice memos to the completion of a new world. That’s what gives him a jolt.
“These ideas are fleeting,” Aoki says. “You have to grab them just like a melody in your head.”
Photo via Shore Fire Media